Monday, October 13, 2008

The "search" feature in Word and sentence-level editing

If my prose ends up feeling machine made, there's a good reason for it. I'm using the "search" feature in MS Word to streamline some of the line editing.

I have a running list of corrections I know I want to make. One example is checking to make sure that I use the word "mom" instead of "father" in certain instances when we're close in on my character's POV. I had used mother a lot in my original draft and decided on mom for most circumstances later on. So I keep an eye out for that as I'm rewriting, but many of them survive, so one tool is just to search for the term "mother" in every chapter and check to see if it needs to be changed. Same for father/dad.

Another example is to look for certain kinds of weak sentence constructions. From my earliest days as a newspaper reporter, my first editor always told me "Don't begin a sentence with 'there is' or 'there are.'" There isn't anything inherently wrong with that. (I just did it in the previous sentence actually.) But it can start you down a path to something else weak in the sentence later and it's a missed opportunity.

For a full explanation, I'll refer you to the book Style: Ten Lessons In Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams, but if you check a draft with many sentences starting "There is" you'll find that the object of the sentence is often an abstraction and often what is called a "nominalization"--a verb in noun form. Clear and graceful (and less wordy) writing typically uses verbs in verb form. So in this case, you have a clumsy, abstract noun following a weak "to be" verb. Also, the subject of the sentence--"there"--is much weaker than if you had a person, place or thing. This is connected to a related principle I try to follow of having every sentence start with a PERSON who is DOING something.

The magic is you don't actually have to know any of this grammar stuff. If you just avoid starting a sentence with "there is" or "there are" you automatically force yourself to use more active verbs and clearer subjects and objects.

BTW, all of this can be similarly applied to sentences that begin (in business/present tense writing) with "It is" or (in narrative/past tense) writing with "It was."

Now, obviously none of this is an absolute rule, except in copy submitted to my first newspaper editor, and if you look above, you'll find a half dozen sentences probably that violate this advice. I'm talking more about writing than rewriting (and who rewrites blog posts?).

Similarly, the first draft of my book, where I was casting about in the dark to find my point, was filled with weak sentence constructions like those--and many others. When it comes time to really try and sharpen the sentence-level writing, I'm going to have a lot of work to do. But on off days when I'm not sure what I should be working on, I try the trick with the search tool. I search for "there is" and several other similar weak constructions, and I try to rewrite the sentences I find, especially if the sentences begin that way.

No comments: